The apparent paradox is easily explained – yes, sport and physicality IS important to the West, but it is the mind’s concept of form rather than the true physical nature of our bodies that occupies our preparation. Let us take the example of how an athlete looks at their preparation. They make take a look at their training plan and in preparation for each session, know their power, heart rate, cadence aims – this is a very cognitive process. In the session, thoughts about how they are doing may often be based on the numbers they are seeing rather than the bodily sensations. I encourage my riders to not become slaves to the figures: ultimately, athletes need to know how to train on ‘feel’ – as it is the body that knows how capable they are of absorbing the stress on that given day. Whilst the most ‘in tune’ athletes might be able to read their body sensations, in the main, judgements against what they ‘should’ be doing (based on the plan, which after all in written in stone tablets!!) are still being made. Dan and I discussed this on Tuesday, as we prepared one of the chapters we are writing for a new book on cycling science: interestingly, in the chapter remit, whilst both power and HR were detailed, no mention of 'training on feel' was made. We have added it to the chapter!
The very best athletes ‘associate’ with bodily sensations – it should be that without even looking at the power meter, cyclists should start to learn what the figures will say. A great test of this is asking a rider to race at a power, or to follow a pacing profile with the computer info covered up. The first attempt may be a little off (we tend to overestimate our abilities early on in races which can lead to premature fatigue); but with practice, riders actually become very good at controlling effort. It just takes trust; trust to over-ride our internal judge, trust to let go of the fear of ‘getting it wrong’. Data is a safety net for many...but I also see it as a progression restricting parachute!
Another example of ‘mind-dominance’ is knowing when to train and when not to. Injuries, bad health, an overly stressful day at work – all examples of when the body might be asking us to ‘take a break’. At first, our voice is very polite: so we ignore it. But, as the stress builds up, the voice gets louder – eventually it is shouting at us. Or worse still, it wrestles control and STOPS us in our tracks. Why doesn’t the athlete listen? They are listening: but the mind is in control – I know from experience that there are two ‘entities’ - one listening to the body, one ignoring it: the latter is the ‘mind’. This is the ‘should do, must do’ part of us. “Coach has given me 5 training sessions this week, that plan is perfect (written in stone tablets), and going ‘off plan’ means I have failed”. So, even though we are tired, stressed, injured, ill – we carry on.
I know because I have done it. Twice I have done this in my athletic career with major consequences – once turning a minor niggle in to an injury lasting 8 weeks; the other racing through a chest infection and bombing in a major race, big time! There were many minor lessons in my 6 years of racings too – you see, the same lesson will keep coming back to us...until we learn it.
How do we learn it? After all, it isn’t easy to let go and to trust, especially in a Western culture that is so driven and measures everyone’s worth based on achievement. Practises that help us get in to our bodies can help. I’m currently reading “Freeing the body, freeing the mind” by Michael Stone. The book explains the use of Yoga as a good way to link the mind and the body. The ancient Yogis referred to ‘the body in the body’ which on the face of it doesn’t make much sense! But let’s look at how Yoga is often taught in the West to dig a little deeper. Currently there is a great explosion in the popularity of practices such as Yoga. Many, if not most, Yoga classes focus on what is the physical element of the practice. This is particularly true of commercial studios. The instructor encourages the student through reminders of the improved strength, flexibility the Yoga postures will deliver to their life. Although this might look like a focus on the body, its actually a focus on the ‘form’ of the body. The Yogis go deeper than this – they ‘become’ the body. The postures in Yoga are not about thinking about ‘stretching those hips further’, but about a silent mind and feeling your way in each pose. No aim, just feeling the stretch. The outcome, a LONG process, is that the mind and body are the same. No judge, no voice.
Coming back to sport, there is a great tendency for athlete’s to be more concerned with the form of their bodies (looking athletic) than the function of their bodies (being athletic). A great example of this is the often used ‘power to weight’ ratio. Too often, there is a pre-occupation with the second side of that equation – i.e. form. Whereas performance is more affected by the power we produce: it is the power that drives the bike forward. Of course, things change when we go vertical, but even then, the athlete will see more benefit from training for power than training to lose weight.
There are no quick fixes for changing attitudes: a lot is so engrained in our culture. But a good guide is whether there is a presence of two voices – if in your training week you ever come to question the best thing to do “should I train or rest?”, 7 times out of 10 there is only once answer – it is just whether you are ready to listen to it! If you ignore the body’s request, just be aware that you have let your mind over rule the body: don’t fall in to the trap of justifying your choice.